The Democrats had their debate. It got nasty. And Donald Trump made his move:
President Trump on Wednesday named Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany who quickly antagonized the establishment after arriving in Berlin in 2018, to be the acting director of national intelligence overseeing the nation’s 17 spy agencies.
By choosing Mr. Grenell, who has little experience in intelligence or in running a large bureaucracy, the president signaled that he wants a trusted, aggressive leader atop an intelligence community that he has long viewed with suspicion and at times gone to war against.
And that’s that. Grenell told the Germans they were jerks. He told them that their small far-right neo-Nazi parties hiding in the hills had it right. So did Viktor Oban in Hungary. He hated Muslim refugees and Muslims in general. He hated Jews too, but no one is perfect. Why couldn’t the Germans be more like him, and why does Merkel like Macron in France? There were only two good French people – Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine. They wanted to make France great again. It would be white and Catholic, as it should be. Or why couldn’t the Germans be more the Poles? They hate Muslims (and Jews) and see a white master race – Slavic, not German this time, but close enough. That was the theme of the speech that Stephen Miller wrote for Trump and that Trump delivered in Warsaw in 2017 – a stirring defense of Western Civilization and the white man’s heroic role in this fallen world. Civilization is no more than blood and soil (white) nationalism. So the Poles had that right. Richard Grenell’s job was to sneer at the German government. Trump sent him there to insult them. And that pissed off the Germans. That was the point. And now Richard Grenell will do the same with the intelligence community here. He knows nothing about that work. But he will insult them, for Trump.
But that may be overstating things:
As ambassador, Mr. Grenell made public statements that some German officials took as expressing opposition to the government there, an extraordinary intervention into domestic affairs that diplomats typically avoid. He attacked what he called “failed” open-border policies in Germany, which has resettled hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and criticized Berlin’s stances on Iran, military spending and Chinese investment in global telephone networks. He also expressed an eagerness to empower conservatives throughout Europe.
“I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders,” Mr. Grenell told Breitbart, a far-right website, in an interview shortly after his arrival in Germany. “I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”
He wasn’t saying he loved Nazis and that they should return to this world. He just likes those people who like Nazis. They’ll keep the Muslims far away. But that sort of thing said over there worries people over here:
While intelligence directors have tried to serve as neutral arbiters of facts, Mr. Grenell’s experience as an ideological advocate prompted some former officials to express concern that he could color the intelligence he presents to Mr. Trump rather than present an objective assessment.
“This is a job requiring leadership, management, substance and secrecy,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer. “He doesn’t have the kind of background and experience we would expect for such a critical position.”
That’s a nice way of saying the worry that he’ll feed Trump the bullshit Trump likes, not even one of the actual facts about what is happening in all the hotspots, especially since Trump seems to have agreed this is a part-time job where Grenell can work from home:
Mr. Grenell is expected to keep his current ambassadorship as long as he is acting intelligence director, one administration official said.
But that’s the deal, and after all, the kid likes the guy:
His bare-knuckled approach clearly resonates with the president and his inner circle. Last spring, shortly before the now-infamous removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, Mr. Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., invoked Mr. Grenell in a tweet about conservative discontent with Ms. Yovanovitch. “We need more @RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors,” the younger Mr. Trump wrote.
Grenell may be the first openly gay cabinet member, but he can sneer at our allies with inventiveness and vigor. He’s a real insult machine (he used to be a Fox News contributor) so he’ll fit right in. And there’s no way that anyone in Congress can do anything about this:
Republican senators had privately pushed the Trump administration to nominate a national security professional for the post, and advisers made clear that the president was not nominating Mr. Grenell for the permanent job. Mr. Trump has installed acting leaders in other top government vacancies, giving him freedom to maneuver around the demands of Senate confirmation.
Senate confirmation requires an actual nominee, which Grenell isn’t, so he’s free to do things like this:
Grenell is also an acerbic combatant who throws regular punches at “fake news” reporters and Mr. Trump’s opponents online. Last month, he angrily demanded that the Washington Post retract a report – which he insisted was based on fabricated sources – that Mr. Trump had threatened to impose auto tariffs on European cars if European leaders did not adopt a tougher line on Iran’s nuclear program. The next day, Germany’s defense minister publicly confirmed it.
Grenell didn’t care, but that sort of thing has consequences:
In a country where former President Barack Obama is still widely popular, Mr. Grenell’s style put off other officials and ultimately isolated him, the German publication Der Spiegel reported last year. “The powerful avoid him,” the newsmagazine wrote. “Doors have been shut.”
Trump, however, loves that sort of thing. He can play victim to elite snobbery or something like that, but some saw this as madness:
Intelligence professionals reacted with surprise, and some with disappointment, questioning Mr. Grenell’s experience and temperament. The appointment demonstrated that Mr. Trump little understands or values the intelligence community, said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Personal loyalty is prized above relevant experience and demonstrated competence,” said Mr. Rasmussen, now the acting executive director of the McCain Institute. “Professionalism and integrity are devalued. The signal this sends to our career national security and intelligence professionals is unmistakable.”
So, let them all quit if they don’t like this. Who needs them anyway? They’re all fools:
Mr. Trump has at times disparaged American intelligence agencies because he did not agree with their findings, perhaps chiefly the conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election to help him win. He told his intelligence chiefs to “go back to school” after they offered assessments on Iran and North Korea at odds with his policy initiatives.
He knows better. He says his gut tells him so. And, if his gut tells him the wrong thing, there’s always something like this:
Donald Trump was being pushed by some in the intelligence community to nominate the current acting intelligence director, Joseph Maguire, to take the job permanently, but the president has been fixated on appointing people he believes are loyal to him, according to White House officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
In recent weeks, he has asked aides which employees are “bad” or “leakers” and deserve to be fired, aides said…
Grenell’s loyalty to the president extends beyond his public statements. In 2018, internal documents from the Trump International Hotel in Washington listed Grenell as a “Gold” level member of the Trump Organization’s “Trump Card” loyalty program.
This is the second time that Trump has given a prominent post to a high-level Trump Card member. Kelly Craft, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, also had gold status, according to the 2018 documents – “VIP Arrivals” lists that the hotel used to alert employees to important guests.
When there’s a question, query the Trump Organization’s “Trump Card” loyalty program and find the answer. Or just do the work yourself:
The White House on Wednesday denied an allegation that President Trump had offered to pardon Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is fighting extradition to the United States, if he absolved Russia of hacking Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Assange’s legal team told a court in London on Wednesday that Mr. Trump had made the offer in 2017 through Dana Rohrabacher, who at the time was a Republican congressman from California.
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, dismissed the accusation.
“The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher, other than he’s an ex-congressman,” Ms. Grisham told reporters. “He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie.”
This item from the New York Times goes on to list all the other reports that seem to confirm Julian Assange was offered the pardon for his public statement that Putin did nothing at all in 2016 or anytime in the past. The offer was there – make Putin look good and receive a full pardon for anything and everything from Donald Trump himself – but the details are still about murky.
That can wait. Other things were happening as Trump systematically disassembled the nation. The Democrats had a debate:
Las Vegas – Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg suffered a punishing welcome and Sen. Bernie Sanders was bludgeoned with criticism as an animated cast of rival candidates spent Wednesday’s presidential debate scrambling to stake their claims against the two rising contenders in the Democratic race.
The result was an urgent, two-hour free-for-all that sizzled with animosity. Candidates who mostly avoided political combat in the previous debates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, came out swinging, each of them aiming to avoid elimination from the race. Contenders who had once respected time limits eagerly spoke over one another, posing questions directly to each other; former vice president Joe Biden, facing his own make-or-break moment, was among those who repeatedly interrupted with the phrase “Let me finish!”
This was nasty, and Mike Bloomberg was the main target:
Sanders (I-Vt.) was challenged on his electability and questioned on his health, the combativeness of his online supporters and the viability of his policy prescriptions. Bloomberg was hit for his political record, his alleged coarse descriptions of women, his extraordinary wealth and his contention that he is best positioned to defeat President Trump. The other candidates on the stage, who have attended each of the previous eight debate rounds, took advantage of their first opportunity to directly challenge the billionaire, who has spent more than $339 million of his own money on advertising to put his campaign in contention.
That is, they picked on Bernie a bit, but then turned on the rich man:
Sanders accused Bloomberg of supporting the “outrageous” policy of stop-and-frisk policing and accumulating more wealth than the poorest 120 million Americans, which he called “immoral.” Warren described Bloomberg as “a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” a reference to quotes attributed to him in a booklet written by a former employee, which Bloomberg disputes. Buttigieg accused Bloomberg of trying to “buy this party out.” Biden called Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy “abhorrent” and said the Obama administration had to intervene.
Warren, taking the tone of a prosecutor, challenged Bloomberg to release women who worked at his firm from nondisclosure agreements signed as part of harassment settlements, and she suggested his response to criticism about how he treated women in the workplace amounted to him saying “I treated some women well.”
“We’re not going to end these agreements because they were made consensually,” Bloomberg said – to boos from the crowd.
He was getting hammered:
Biden, who had squabbled with Bloomberg in the lead-up to the debate over who has the right to claim the legacy of Barack Obama, grew most animated over Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy that targeted young black men in New York.
“It’s not whether he apologized or not. It’s the policy,” Biden said. “The policy was abhorrent and a violation of every right people have.”
“I’ve sat,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve apologized. I’ve asked for forgiveness.”
But then, he said, everyone onstage had a problem in their past.
“If we took off everybody that was wrong on this off this panel, everybody that was wrong on criminal justice at some time in their careers, there’d be nobody else up here,” he said, as several candidates shook their heads.
He’s a lost cause, and Slate’s Jim Newell saw this:
It was Pete Buttigieg who laid out the subtext of Wednesday night’s merciless Democratic debate in Las Vegas early in the proceedings.
“We’ve got to wake up as a party,” Buttigieg said. “We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage.”
Newell finds that odd:
It was not the usual message you hear from a candidate who’s atop the delegate leaderboard after Iowa and New Hampshire. But whether or not you agree with Buttigieg’s premise that such a one-on-one would be an unfortunate endgame for the nomination that was the direction the race was heading in as the debate began.
Wednesday’s debate was by far the nastiest (and let’s be honest, easily the most entertaining) of the cycle because of the last-gasp urgency that those candidates facing extinction – Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar – were forced to act on.
Is that a good thing? Ben Mathis-Lilley saw this:
After a subsequent discussion of Bloomberg’s wealth during which he said he had “worked very hard” for his multi-multi-billion-dollar fortune, Sanders noted to him, to oohs and aahs and oh snaps from the audience, that “maybe your workers played some role in that as well.”
It was a very hard night for Bloomberg, and a big part of why it was so hard is that the other Democrats were so sharp and confident in their criticisms of him. They weren’t flustered by his dismissive speaking style, or shaken by his poll standing and spending power, and they all seemed to find it easy to articulate (even during heated back and forths) why his record and personality were objectionable.
But that’s fine:
This should be good news for Democrats for two reasons. One is that, despite the intraparty sniping and snarking that is taking place during the primary, Bloomberg’s competitors demonstrated that they do, in fact, share common values which animate them more than their differences and can snap them quickly into a unified front. The other is that, in an environment in which Democratic voters have become obsessed with finding a nominee who can “stand up” to Trump, all five of the non-Bloomberg candidates on stage stood up to someone who shares a few of his most unsavory traits and came out as clear winners.
That may or may not be a good thing. People do like Bloomberg. But E. J. Dionne sees what seems like fiddling while Rome burns:
While the Democratic presidential candidates tear each other to pieces, President Trump is sending a message to the country: The rule of law means nothing to him. He will weaponize the federal government to his own political purposes, and things will only get worse if he’s reelected.
Trump has said many awful things, but here are his most chilling words yet: “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”
Trump as “the chief law enforcement officer” is akin to putting the Houston Astros in charge of policing cheating in Major League Baseball.
It should worry Democrats that as the dangers posed by four more years of Trump (and two more years of a supine GOP Senate) become clearer, their presidential race may be coming down to a choice between a billionaire and a democratic socialist.
And that choice might be totally irrelevant:
Everything that Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders say about each other will play into the hands of the king of divide-and-conquer. Trump will use their fight to split off one part of the Democratic coalition, or the other. No wonder the president is acting as if he has absolute power…
This is not a normal time. We have seen too many cases in history when authoritarian leaders triumphed because their opponents were so focused on adversaries within their own camp that they lost track of the larger struggle to preserve democracy and free government…
Can these Democratic candidates start competing over who is best positioned to bring together the majority of Americans who disapprove of how Trump is running things? Can they try to prove it by reaching out now to constituencies not part of their own natural base – and by taming the furies within their own factions? Can they look at the smirk on Trump’s face and realize the damage they’ll do our nation if they just pretend that this primary is like every other?
The answer to each of those questions is no, probably not. They will fiddle around. Rome will burn to the ground. Rome is burning now.